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Rich Ellson: Adventures in a Brave New World

How does one seed a conservative science environment with new technology, particularly one that replaces a tool as basic as the lab coat? By being an active part of the community, listening to the challenges faced by its members and contributing to collaborative efforts.


SLAS Board of Directors member Richard Ellson watched his creation take on a life of its own. It began in 2003 when Ellson gave a podium presentation on liquid dispensing technology at a Society for Biomolecular Sciences (SBS) meeting. Through the course of the next 10 years, after Ellson developed the technology for commercial use, he listened as other scientists presented research that took his technology into new areas of research. Ellson was delighted.

"Growing this company has been intertwined with SLAS," says Ellson, the founder of Labcyte in Sunnyvale, CA, where he serves as chief technical officer. "The podium at SBS, as well as the Association for Laboratory Automation (ALA) and later at the SLAS conferences and exhibitions has tended to be where our customers present new research using our technology. Scientists reinvent their work process in order to take the best advantage of the tool we have given them."

Labcyte, developers of acoustic liquid dispensing technology such as the Echo series of liquid handlers, serves scientists involved in compound management, genomics, proteomics, diagnostics or other laboratory applications. The company's instruments use acoustic energy to transfer liquids by using sound waves to eject precisely sized droplets from the source liquid into a microplate, microscopic slide or other surfaces suspended above the source. This process eliminates that time-honored laboratory workhorse, the pipette.

"Acoustic transfer is a disruptive technology," Ellson explains. "Labcyte moves liquids, which people have done for time immemorial with buckets, canals, aqueducts and even small vials, but we do it in a way that's radically different from the normal way of picking things up, such as with a pipette tip."

SLAS podium and poster presentations reveal that scientists have used Labcyte equipment to do everything from eliminating intermediate dilution in primary screening, pooling and normalization in genomics, to replacing polymerase chain reaction (PCR) with cell reporter gene assays, screening with patient cells rather than an engineered or immortalized cell line, and synthesizing compounds on demand in an assay well and then doing the assay on top. A quick search of SLAS's two MEDLINE-indexed scientific journals, the Journal of Biomolecular Screening (JBS) and Journal of Laboratory Automation (JALA), yields similar results, showing more innovations in 60-plus articles that reference the use of Labcyte's equipment in published research.

"You must work patiently with the adventurous scientists in our profession to find out how this brave new world of discovery and innovation will impact daily research," says Ellson, who is the inventor on 67 issued U.S. patents. "Experiencing an Aha Moment is what many inventors, like myself, live for, and providing an environment for others to have their own Eurekas is an equivalent joy for me. Especially when it is a new use for our Echo systems. The pleasure of making a new tool is seeing – and often being surprised by – the creative new things users do with it!"

Academics in Industrial Settings

Ellson understands the desire to adapt and improve; it's why he pursued science and engineering in the first place. "When I was young, I used to accompany my father, a professor and licensed professional engineer, on tours of factories and power plants. I think seeing how things were made and the workflow of factories helped me gain an early appreciation for the fact that there is more than one way to solve a problem, and these methods have different advantages and disadvantages," he says.

"Elegant solutions to problems often resulted in methods that withstood the test of time, such as the light bulb manufacturing machines at General Electric or film coating at Kodak. However, a fundamental change in base technology could destabilize this infrastructure. Large molded glass bulbs were not necessarily the best vehicles for lighting with the transition from hot filaments to CFLs and now LEDs. Similarly, as digital imaging replaced chemical photography (silver halide) at Kodak, coating machines for film and paper were replaced with silicon fabrication and displays. I see the same thing now with the introduction of robust, small-volume transfers with the advent of acoustic transfer technology," he explains.

"Technology shifts that change size, ease of use and cost per use result in greater fundamental shifts for users," Ellson continues. "With acoustics, it is not just that people shrank the size and/or volume of an assay by moving from a low-density microplate to a higher density microplate, it is that they fundamentally do something different with it."

Ellson has observed fundamental shifts throughout his career, which he describes as requiring more of an academic, "big picture" approach than was typically performed in industrial settings. He worked first at Eastman Kodak where a variety of management and technical roles and contributions to internal manufacturing processes helped him earn a Kodak Doctoral Award in 1988. The award enabled Ellson, who holds a B.S. in fluid and thermal science and an M.S. in mechanical engineering from Case Western Reserve University, Cleveland, OH, to take a two-year paid leave to study mathematics at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

"When I started at Eastman Kodak in manufacturing research, my goal was to figure out how to do what they were doing better. That's always a cause for interesting interaction. That's where I distilled some of the maxims I frequently quote around Labcyte, such as 'solids are evil' when it comes to liquid handling," he says, laughing.

He explains that managing fluids is a chaotic process, particularly when it comes to tiny amounts. Surface roughness becomes a mountain range separating the microscopic droplets from their destination. "Almost every time we encounter trouble moving liquids it's because of something done by the solid that was touching the liquid, whether that solid is changing, wearing, degrading or becoming contaminated. The liquid was generally well behaved; it was the solid that was the root of the evil," says Ellson. What this meant for Labcyte technology was that it needed to eliminate the solids. "In Labcyte instruments, the solid is exterior to the fluid," he continues. "The only thing fed into the liquid is sound."

Which leads to another adage Ellson uses today, "The sensor is the actuator," which he developed an appreciation for when he worked as an area manager for novel printing technologies at the Xerox Palo Alto Research Center (PARC). The goal at PARC was to make components that could take care of themselves. "We created components smart enough to sense their environment and change themselves so that they could adapt," Ellson explains. "If the component that is doing the detecting figures out how to do the action and self-correct its action, then you have a smarter, more robust machine."

Labcyte has moved the sensor-is-an-actuator philosophy into a new level in the company's technology. "The sound generator we use can switch from being a speaker to a microphone. It sends out sound, listens to that sound as it reflects off of things in the environment and then responds by adjusting the sound that it emits the next time," Ellson says.

To achieve this, Labcyte adapts sensing technologies from other industries into their equipment. "To focus the sound energy correctly to move the liquid in our equipment, we use sonar. We also use medical ultrasound to determine the characteristics of the liquid with which we are working, much like you would cancerous tissue in the bone or blood when you are looking inside someone's body. We use medical ultrasound technology to help us modify our focus and do other calculations," he explains. "We also use a Doppler methodology to help us tune the amount of energy we deliver to make droplets."

Adapting the sensor as an actuator opened a broad range of opportunities for the instrument to automatically adjust itself. "The applications then grew exponentially, opening not just compound addition for drug discovery but all areas of life science research," Ellson says.

Taking the Scenic Route

In his life outside the lab, Ellson remains in motion. The avid cyclist commutes to work either by traveling a series of suburban streets or navigating the wilds of the San Francisco Baylands, a 17-mile, round-trip ride that is bordered by Moffett Federal Airfield, San Francisco Bay and the backyards of several corporate headquarters. As he rides along the San Francisco Bay Trail on the levees through salt ponds, marsh land and sloughs, the headwinds in the area often peak at 30 miles an hour.

"Given the wind patterns on the baylands in this area, you will have gusts from the south in the morning that shift to the north in the evening. Like the proverbial 'I walked uphill both ways to school every day,' I do have upwind both ways almost every day," Ellson says.

Goats mow grass behind GoogleOnly early morning meetings keep this married father of two off his bike, but the area wildlife are determined to challenge his commute. "Snakes block the trail, skunks leisurely walk down the levee leaving no room to pass them, great blue herons create collisions, crazy rabbits run at your wheel – it's an adventure!" Ellson says. Some days, he rounds the corner and dodges shepherds herding 300 sheep and goats behind the company headquarters for Yahoo! and Google. "They use the sheep and goats to keep the grass short," Ellson explains. The stories, sights and the occasional beautiful, still moonlit evening make it worth his time.

"When the water level gets to a certain point on the salt ponds you will see blooms of little shrimp and crustaceans that draw in clouds of egrets for snack time," he says. "I would often tell my daughters what I saw on the way home during the work week. Seasonal migrations, hatchings and also the availability of food in the ponds greatly change the birdscape. Sometimes there may be thousands of egrets or stilts, and the next day none." Without really knowing it, he had become a birder.

Then Steve Fillers, an SLAS colleague and JALA Editorial Board member, loaned him The Big Year: A Tale of Man, Nature, and Fowl Obsession, a book about competitive birders on a mission to secure the most sightings in 1998, an epic year for bird watching. Ellson and his younger daughter, Olivia, read the book. This motivated her to do a school project on bird identification, which took father and daughter out to the baylands most weekends for a few months to photograph and identify birds. "Within a short half-mile walk, she photographed and identified 40 species," Ellson says. This project led the pair to join a youth birding group. Ellson is amazed with how much knowledge the young birders – known as The Fledglings – have acquired in a short amount of time.

SLAS and the Volunteer Connection

Ellson plays Hagrid from Harry Potter in a local parade.The acquisition of knowledge is like that – it starts small and rapidly expands under the right conditions. Ellson observes that SLAS is an environment for such growth. The generous sharing of knowledge and the many connections he has made over the years are what inspire him to give back to the Society.

Including his current post on the SLAS Board of Directors, Ellson has served as a JALA Editorial Board member for six years and has been involved in many Society activities over the years. Prior to joining the SLAS board, he was a reviewer and author for both journals, a podium speaker for SBS, a poster author and presenter for both SBS and ALA, and eventually SLAS, and an exhibitor for many years. He also volunteered time as a student poster judge, session chair and member of the Scientific and Nominations Committees for ALA. Since joining the SLAS board at the beginning of 2013, Ellson has served on the Strategic Planning Committee, recently became chair of the Nominations Committee and is the board delegate to the SLAS Europe Regional Council.

A future goal is to adopt new methods for more broadly delivering information and experiences to SLAS members, as well as ways to leverage the knowledge of the community through webinars and short courses. The plan is to make this content available and customized through the SLAS regional councils.

"The globalization of SLAS through regionalization is the challenge ahead, and building the awareness and infrastructure of our organization requires investment and planning that is now underway at many levels within SLAS," says Ellson. The Society deployed a progressive new leadership model that activates three regional leadership councils in Europe, Asia and the Americas and is overseen by one executive board of directors. "This new infrastructure will empower those regions to set agendas, priorities and customize how to best meet SLAS' global mission to each region," he comments.

Ellson's specific duty is to serve as board liaison to SLAS Europe. "Given the different infrastructure and ways of doing things in other countries, a global organization, even if it has globally relevant knowledge, needs to customize its methods and deliveries for its constituents/audiences in the various regions," Ellson notes. "How you present in Asia or Europe is not how you would present in the U.S. This includes how one might market events, recruit volunteers and determine what people want to hear at a seminar. There are a lot of regional differences that require localized knowledge. Those are the aspects of SLAS growth that we continue to examine. We want to work toward the same goals, but the infrastructure and delivery systems for doing so are different."

One year into his three-year term as an SLAS Board of Directors member, Ellson remains impressed by "the willingness of people to serve and to give thoughtful, constructive comments on how to improve the Society and its ability to fulfill its mission," he comments.

Before his technology and Labcyte had transitioned from local to global, Ellson says he frequently held conversations about it with fellow SLAS members, some of whom he now serves with on the board. Ellson mentions SLAS Board of Directors member Alastair Binnie, M.S., vice president of research informatics and automation at Bristol-Myers Squibb (BMS), as one of those forward-thinkers who drove the effort to include Labcyte's technology at BMS. He also shares a story about SLAS member Christine Brideau, who paved the way for early adoption of Labcyte technology at Merck in Canada. "Christine led the charge to bring our instruments into Merck and then it spread through the rest of the organization," Ellson says.

"The past 10 years are sort of a closed loop," he says, with a chuckle. "It's nice that the people, who were able to grasp what a revolution you could create by making things robust and small back then, are the same people who serve SLAS today to keep the organization moving, growing and changing. It is great to have their vision and willingness to retool and stay current as they serve SLAS now and in the years to come."

June 9, 2014